Romanticism and Materialism (part II)

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The death and the life of all beings are linked one with the other. An invincible harmony reigns in the destiny of men, and even after their days. In complete triumph, but misunderstood and alone, Delacroix, like a sick lion, vomits his blood in the depths of his cave. An old eagle whose feathers have been torn out, Berlioz, preparatory to his death, retires to the high aerie where the ice and the sun of the peaks complete the burning out of men's nerves after they have delighted in love too much. Hugo, a giant demagogue, emperor of words and of the boards, expires, killed by the murmur of an immense people, which tries to retain him. Baudelaire ends as a wreck, poisoned by the perfume of his great venomous flowers, and mingling his sublime putrefaction with the fermentation of the sensual universe. When his mystic dream of society crumbles in the conflagrations of the Commune, the arteries break in Michelet's brain. Wagner, at the center of the city ardent in its setting and in its painting, falls to sleep in the arms of Isolde, between sea and sky. Vigny dies without speaking. Corot takes the pipe from his mouth, and draws his last breath amid a few good friends. Musset, the man drunk with sentiment, dies of drunkenness. Dostoievski is taken away to the cemetery by a noisy mob of prostitutes princes, priests, and convicts. Tolstoy, in order that he may live according to the last dictates of his heart, dies of cold on the threshold of a poor cabin.

The life and the end of Géricault symbolize romanticism. They possess its violent and absolute spirit of conquest, irreparably, without thought of the morrow, its indifference to morals, and its bitter taste of death. He is in the vanguard, coining from Prud'hon, as he says of himself, and standing between Gros, whose weapons he gathers up to combat David, and Delacroix, who will take possession of his passionate movement, to inject into it more of flame and of mystery, by causing to enter into it his tide of ardent matter and of moving color. Too much black. Too many nude statues, but a modeling accentuated by the tragic shadow; the dead lying everywhere, a heap of livid cadavers tossed by the ocean; he is possessed by a mad passion for invading the world of sensation through all the senses. When his brief task is ended, and his young friend Delacroix has exhibited the "Bark of Dante" and begun the "Massacre of Scio"—the war cry of romanticism—he dies, consumed by phthisis and by dissipation, through having fallen from a savage horse. Delacroix will not complete that task, for he is too powerful ever to accept frontiers between life, which is ever incomplete, and his work, which is ever rising; but when he disappears, the world will find itself in the presence of a new mystery. A man will have possessed, in a state of incessant germination, the silent pride of Vigny, the endless plastic wealth of Hugo, the eternal sensual vibration of Baudelaire, a tormented aspiration similar in its profundity to Shakespeare's, and, in a heart throbbing with fever, the harmony of will gained by his constant frequentation of Racine and of Poussin. The strongest and greatest painter-soul since Rembrandt.

A few hours had sufficed him, while the exhibition was being organized behind official doors, to repaint the "Massacre of Scio" after having seen Constable's canvases which taught him the luminosity to be drawn from divided tones. English painting, so superficial, but of so rich a surface, and unknown in France during forty years, because of the incessant wars, entered his mind at the right moment, both by the authority of the masters and by the insistence of a friend, Bonington having confided to him his gifts and his dreams, while working near him. Almost at once, he acquires his technique, which he will go on perfecting until the end. He made for himself a chromatic frame, on which the colors are disposed according to the diametrical oppositions, which are reunited with one another by their intermediary tones. [Reported, in his Artistes Français, by Th. Sylvestre, the only writer, after Baudelaire, to have the sense of great painting in the nineteenth century. Fromentin, a little painter and an eminent littérateur, understands it less, and hypnotizes himself—sagaciously, indeed—upon questions of technique. He is, and must remain, the idol of the grammarians of painting.] Already one sees violently heightened tones, transparent glazes over long passages of distinct cross-hatching employed to make the painting vibrate; one sees the colored transparence of shadows, and the use of pure colors and of separate touches in order to banish neutral tones and gray. But what trifles all these things are! His lean, small hand brandishes, as if it were an arrow, this instrument which is so heavy for those who are alarmed by the weight of the weapon they are to raise. He reads Dante. He reads Shakespeare. He reads Faust, and illustrates it, and the old Goethe is startled at being understood by such a boy. He listens to Gluck and to Mozart. He writes much, almost always for himself alone, and his metaphysical torment often makes one think of Pascal. He meditates and trembles with fever before Michael Angelo. He reaps a harvest from Veronese, and with full hands. The power of Rubens fills him with its great continuous wave. His external life is dignified and somewhat aloof, with an impeccable varnish of fashion, under which rumbles the volcano. In the street, he observes the walk of women, the roll of their hips, the tremble of their breasts, and the dull splendor of their necks, as solid as a column; he loves horses, trees, the great sky when cloudy or when it has its aspect of twilight, and the coming of night. There are his elements, there is his language, even if he is to sharpen it, and render it more supple, more firm, and more direct. It serves him to carry outside himself the symbols of his thought, as the gesture of an orchestra-loader wrests from the silence of wood- and wind-instruments which had been sleeping, the song of all the nightingales of the forest, mingled with the voices of all the rivers, and all the words of men which are swept along by all the winds.

For of all the musicians of painting, he is perhaps the most complex and the most poignant. He often causes one to think of Beethoven, often of Wagner, sometimes of Berlioz. In poor health and nervous, with the face of a sick lion, he has the drawn features, the burning eyes, and the pale complexion of men in whose tense heart dwells a symphonic, chaotic, and contradictory storm, but who have the mute strength to impose upon it the order and mastery of the mind. A singular discord reigns between his temperament and his culture, but if he takes the brush in his hand, everything obeys at the very instant, and the cries of passion roll under the dull harmony, like those boiling jets of water through which submarine eruptions lift up, in places, the somber surface of the sea. His soul is bound to the universe by the luminous vibrations which his eye alone perceives, and which have the sonority, the mystery, and the infiniteness of music. All space resounds, like an immense lyre, with the colorations and the lights which place it in the region of his own inner drama.

Of what importance are his subjects, those of all the men of his time—history, sometimes myth, the tragedies of the dramatists of the north, the Orient which is being opened by conquest and by travel, and which a long excursion that he himself makes to Morocco reveals to him with its scorching sadness, its color of blood and of tragedy, its men and its animals, indolent and convulsive, the antique fatalism, and the implacable, nomadic spirit which continue and prolong themselves in its cunning immobility, its silence, and its cruelty? That which he paints is the agitation of a hallucinated soul, which a great harmony, piercing but accepted, dominates from the regions of the invisible, of which he has a presentiment. Everything expresses movement: the distant and narrow streets of a city, twisting like masses of serpents, the clouds and the smoke carried along by the same wind in which the pennants flap, the waving flames of torches, oak trees gashed in the track of the lightning, the ascending and centripetal gallop of the horses who draw the chariot of the sun, or the twist of trunks and limbs which a central tragedy hurls around the same point or distributes from one end of the canvas to the other, according to the bounding rhythms of flight, of attack, of defense, or of voluptuousness.

That which he expresses is rather the spirit than the form of movement. Or rather, his own spirit determines the movement. He draws from the object, but the moment that he takes up his brush he shuts himself up all alone; without a model, he attacks his picture from all sides at once, hastens his whole march toward the horizon of his desire, sees surrounding life like a sphere, full and confused, and goes to it to demand the expression of the accidentals of its surface from the spiritual density of its secret depths. Here is hunger, monstrous paws clutching torn arms and bleeding breasts, muzzles drawn back from teeth, eyes like hot coals, and wild boars covered with blood as they tear through lungs. Here is anger, here are the bare shoulders, breasts, and arms of mothers stung to fury, the child hanging from their fierce embrace, and a dagger in their hand. Here is war, blood as red as the sky and the conflagration, eyes consumed by weeping, black or red hair twisted like vipers, the arms of a cadaver stretched out over the knees of a dying woman, and here are horses who scent death. Here is love, with the tragic meaning it assumes with anyone who has greatness, the somber flowers in the depth of the perfumed shadow, the necklaces chinking on the burning skin, the ambered bellies which recede into the shadow of the hidden thighs, the terrific attraction of the deep fruits in which the strong man finds strength, from which the weak man drinks poison, but before which no man knows in advance whether he is weak or whether he is strong. Here is death, the lips of children feeling around breasts hardened by the cold swelling of the putrefaction soon to come, and the waves, under low clouds, rolling decomposed cadavers, stiffened arms, white mouths, and lips turning back over teeth. The form and the color are a thought in action. One can no longer speak of them, but of a continuous rhythmic bounding, in which the imagination of the painter, a prey to the ordered lyricism of those who absorb the world in order to give it the form of their skull and the movement of their heart, liberates and fuses his sensations, his ideas, and his sentiments. What does the word "drawing" mean in these moving surfaces which the drama twists, convulses, and embosses from within, so that it may bring the expression of the spirit to certain dominant projections, which cause the color to roar, sigh, laugh, or sing? The color itself moves. It vibrates, it hesitates or sinks down, and rises and descends like the sea. The local tone, the reflection, the passage, and the value are the very actors of the drama. That red which sinks and grows somber in the carnage sends forth a continuing clamor, that pink laughs in sinister fashion amid that dark hair, that blue sends into revolting hearts the mirage of paradise that one thinks to be within reach of one's hand, that gold and that carmine undulate and burn in the enervating warmth of a room of voluptuousness, and that livid green is taken from seas of storm and from flesh in putrefaction, to express the passage or the empire of death. The tone which is born and dies and is reborn under the eyes of men sixty years after the death of the painter, interprets the profound movement of his dramatic emotion, which the breathless line pursues in order to inclose it in the actual. And whatever the energy of this line, which bounds and rebounds under the repeated burning touches of the creative flame, the tragedy of the color seems to escape from it, to outstrip it, and to drag it along in its torment, as it hurries to reach the mystic depths where the universe seems to unite its confused force with the soul of greatly inspired men. Delacroix is probably the only man who, without ever being vanquished, has constantly gone to seek outside the eternal symbols of the Greek myth and of the Bible, in literature and in modern history, pretexts for manifesting his passion. This overflowing, one over the other, of the languages of faith, music, poetry, and painting, is a new phenomenon, one in which romanticism usually strikes against its reef, but also, with two or three men, Delacroix, Baudelaire, Wagner, sometimes Hugo, sometimes Berlioz, the summit whence it can claim to reach the invisible region where all forms of faith dwell and are confused in the highest symbolism. Of all, it is certainly the painter who runs most dangers, for if he, for a second, loses sight of the object—the plastic architecture of the earth and of heaven, the sinking of the volumes into the depth of the planes, the gamut of the values, and the solidarity of the lines—the whole world of sentiment in which literature moves at ease entangles him, steals his savor, submerges him, and misleads his mind, taking it away from the region of the concrete, where his imagination must seek all its food. Reality, for the painter, is surely the inner vision of the universe which he possesses. But all vision whose material roots do not plunge everywhere into the unlimited substance of the sense life of the painter, does not belong to painting. The English pre-Raphaelites, the German didactic painters, Boecklin the Swiss, and Gustave Moreau the Frenchman, will learn this to their cost, and not at the cost of painting, which is in no way concerned with them.

Because his eyes possessed the secret of sight, he is, then, the only one on this peak who possesses such mastery that his literary emotions, his metaphysical tortures, his aspirations of sentiment, and the confused visions which music arouses in him, are transposed into the real world of colors and of forms which thereby is extended as if by a god. Here, then, is the history of men and its fatality, which we name love, or will, and its pitiless serenity, which we call cruelty. Here are the faces of ecstasy or of sorrow under which the march of events goes its indifferent way. Here is Faust, the doctor. Here is exact knowledge arrived at the brink of nothingness and leaning, appalled, over its abyss, where the void and night plunge from a bed of flowers. Here is the reverie of Hamlet. Here is the invincible mystery, the boundless immensity of space and of feeling which was contained entire in a box of bone for less time than the life of a plant, and which disappeared thence forever in the space of a lightning flash. And here is the only image for the possession of which it is important that we should live: the one which a great soul realizes in order to test the value of its enthusiasm, and which is found to correspond to so many undecided, stammering indications in the fleeting objects of our love, that, little by little, it becomes for us more real than the world, and affords us a faith which has greater youth after each one of our crises of despair.

"What is most real in me are the Illusions which I create. . ." Yes. And by these Illusions which he creates, Eugène Delacroix converses, as Baudelaire expresses it, with the "supernatural." His religion is a burning and inexhaustible hearth, fed by all the dramas, all the faces of nature, and everything that is tragic and that is charming in the brief human adventure; and on this hearth he pours his fire. With Rembrandt, Rubens, and Michael Angelo, he is perhaps the man who has labored most and best in painting to wrest the great mystery from the domain of theology, and to install it in the deepest recess of the human heart, which is forever borrowing it from the impassable immensity of the universe, in order to give it humanity's confused animation, and return the mystery to the universe, increased by the immensity of the heart.

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